Few consider the deaf wine community for media, jobs, and opportunities. These two are hoping to change that.
By Sedale McCall
Over the past few years, the topics of diversity and representation have dominated wine conversation. And rightfully so. Significantly, much of that conversation has focused on race, and has emphasized the experience of Black and Hispanic communities in wine (learn more about our perspective here). However, D&I efforts cannot solely focus on racial diversity to be truly inclusive. Gender, sexuality, and disabilities should also be considered.
Laura Unterstein, an American Sign Language interpreter, decided to do something about it.
“While the wine industry has experienced a reckoning of sorts over the past few years regarding diversity and gender equality, I very rarely saw conversations about inclusion touch on accessibility for the Deaf and/or disabled communities,” she said. “Diversity is intersectional, and it must include accessibility.”
How it All Started
Unterstein’s company, Uncorked Access, is a solution to a problem she hadn’t yet seen addressed. The organization advocates for the deaf wine community and also provides solutions to the challenges that community faces.
“Uncorked Access came about very organically because there wasn’t another organization like it,” says Unterstein. “I connected with Peter Cook, a highly respected leader in the Deaf community, over the fact that we both had our Level 3 Award in Wines through WSET. There is nothing about wine that inherently requires sound or hearing to appreciate it.
Unterstein continues, “we started raising awareness, and Uncorked Access naturally grew into an organization that not only encourages conversations but offers solutions. We believe we can create the change we want to see through advocacy, education, and community, engaging with both the hearing and Deaf communities.”
For Michelle Morris, advocate and communications director with the National Deaf Center, wine was another avenue to pursue her passions.
“Last year, I went through a bit of a rough patch, and my friends asked me what I would do if I could do something I loved and get paid for it,” said Morris. “Serendipitously, I saw an ad for a part-time sales associate position at DCanter Wines in D.C Before last year, I didn’t realize the wealth of opportunity in wine, nor the dearth of disabled and BIPOC representation. A desire to change this fueled me to keep learning, growing, and finding opportunities to be in this field.”
Challenges for the Deaf Wine Community
Both Unterstein and Morris see many opportunities to address challenges for the deaf wine community, which includes increasing access to available wine education resources.
“A lot of wine education is not accessible in sign language [or] any sign language,” says Morris. “Deaf people who sign that want to pursue wine education have to fight for basic accommodations with institutions unfamiliar with this demographic. Not only that, educational materials on YouTube and other places don’t always have captions, either. Without equal access to information, it is really hard for deaf people to succeed in this field.”
Unterstein agrees and continues to urge the industry to emphasize captioning and creating accessible content.
“First and foremost, everyone can and should caption any video content. Don’t rely on auto-captions, which often make mistakes with wine jargon, producer names, regions, etc.,” says Unterstein. “Secondly, include disability in your DEI policies and initiatives. Wine schools and certification programs should be aware of their obligations under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and be ready and willing to provide qualified sign language interpreters for deaf students.”
For Morris, accessibility also needs to include representation of the deaf wine community, which is a large, global community of wine experts that needs more attention in the space.
“I think there needs to be more of an active recruitment of people with disabilities, and BIPOC with disabilities into the field. Many deaf people love wine, but they lack the same access to knowledge about opportunities to be able to grab what is currently out there,” says Morris. “Bring existing wine experts with disabilities to the table. Some people have been working in the industry for years; they are veterans. They are viticulturists, winemakers, vineyard owners…educators, etc. They need to be [highlighted] more so that others can be inspired to enter the world of wine as well.”
Supporting the deaf wine community can be as simple as learning the language. Both women agree that if you’ve meant to learn ASL, there’s no time like the present.
“I so often hear from people that they’ve always wanted to learn sign language, and I encourage them to do it! Move into action,” says Unterstein.
Morris noted something similar.
“If you are trying to be a better supporter of the deaf community, truly support them. Instead of saying, ‘I wish I learned ASL,’ learn it!”
Furthermore, both also agree that part of being an ally is opening doors for this community within organizations or affiliations.
“Instead of questioning the capabilities of a deaf person for your business or team, take a chance and hire them. Train them up,” says Morris.
Unterstein added, “If you’re part of planning an event, include verbiage that sign language interpreters will be provided upon request, and learn how to hire and work with qualified ASL interpreters. If you are on a board or in a leadership role, start a conversation about what your organization can do to be more accessible and deaf-friendly.”
Both women are only beginning their journeys to increasing access in the deaf wine community. You can follow Michelle at @Migukren on Instagram, and Laura and Uncorked Access are at @uncorked_access. You can also learn more about Uncorked Access at https://www.uncorkedaccess.com/.